Now why would I want to write a post just to compare two completely different films that have almost nothing to do with each other? The answer is two-fold. For one, I believe that at the heart of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the second Nolan Batman film The Dark Knight lies a very similar tragic tale of how a good person becomes a force for evil and it is my opinion that George Lucas did a much better and more insightful job. Secondly, The Dark Knight has been widely received as a masterpiece, the one work that truly changed the face of superhero movies and even one of the greatest films ever made, while the Star Wars prequels as a whole have been maligned unfairly by critics, not to mention utterly despised by hordes of angry, resentful fanboys frothing at the mouth with rabid hatred. In my opinion, the Star Wars prequel trilogy as a whole is a vastly underrated masterpiece and The Dark Knight is just a relatively good movie heavily damaged by some colossally disturbing flaws. Since I’m obviously in the minority, I think it’s only right that I explain why I feel this way, and one approach would be to tackle the one component the two films most clearly have in common: the tragic downfall of a hero. In this case, Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force and Harvey Dent’s turn to becoming Two-Face.
Let’s start with the actual “prelapsarian” characterisations of Anakin Skywalker and Harvey Dent, respectively. In The Phantom Menace, Anakin is a little boy with a kind and loving heart, fearless and overconfident, but compassionate as well. His departure from his mother is clearly the emotional centre of the film as well as the start of his spiritual journey. This departure is reluctant and uncertain and it comes with a promise, an overconfident promise from the boy, claiming that he will “come back and free you, mom”. In Attack of the Clones, it becomes clear in the beginning that Anakin hasn’t actually kept his promise. His duties as a Padawan have kept him from returning to Tatooine. His overconfidence has evolved into a certain arrogance and an impetuousness that may be due to his youth, but also enlarged by his actual immense power, which is clearly too much for him to deal with. When premonitions of his mother’s impending death start plaguing him, he abandons his duties to return to the promise he made ten years before as a little boy. It then turns out, he is too late. He cannot save his mother. For the first time, all his power is not enough, and that realisation brings confusion, guilt and anger with it. The seed of his downfall is sown in this moment, when he acts out his feelings of extreme anger by committing an atrocity: slaying the Sand People who are responsible for his mother’s death, blinded by rage. It’s important to note that this is not yet the moment when he turns into a monster. He goes right back to being Anakin, but now a wounded version with a blight on his soul. He is still compassionate for those he loves, as evidenced by his attempt at rescuing Obi-Wan and his commitment to the good fight in the early stages of Revenge of the Sith. But what happened with Anakin’s mother has left a stain on his idealism and his confidence, and deep inside he fears that the world is not fair and he is not capable of vanquishing death and that makes him resentful and angry rather than humble, precisely because he is used to being so powerful in the Force and because he is aware of the rumours that he is “the Chosen One”. It is precisely when what he loves most dearly in the world is endangered, that he panics and starts behaving like a cornered animal. In this weakened emotional state, he is willing to listen to Palpatine’s evil whisperings.
Compare this to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. For one thing, Harvey was not even present in the far superior Batman Begins. His story only begins with the second film, where he is established early on as a noble and idealistic figure: finally someone the people can really look up to and believe in because he has a genuine vision for Gotham’s safety and dealing with its massive crime problem. It’s revealed that he has a relationship with Rachel Dawes so we assume he is in love with her, although this is never actually shown in great detail. If anything, their relationship is clearly young and tentative and under a lot of pressure. It’s not the kind of uncontrolled, immature passion that Anakin feels for Padmé… Which is precisely why the subsequent loss or Rachel’s life, no matter how tragic, is not a credible setup for a complete personality change in Harvey. The problem is that Harvey Dent is shown to be a very mature and balanced individual. It would take a lot for him to turn to the dark side and I think we can rule out romantic passion, because he is clearly shown to be a more mature person than that and the nature of his relationship to Rachel is far too down-to-earth to warrant a Dracula-like turn away from the light.
Could it be then, that hubris was the inner flaw that put Harvey on his dark path? Anakin possessed enormous power and succumbed to his delusions of grandeur, believing it was possible for him to conquer death itself. Nothing so operatic is even hinted at in Harvey Dent. He is a district attorney, not a chosen mythological hero. He wields the power to push back crime, but it’s quite clearly a hard struggle. He’s winning, but only because of his own innate moral resilience, not because he wields a power he cannot comprehend. He is even so wise that he knows the danger of good intentions and too much power in advance, as he says in the beginning of the movie: “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. So what is it that pushes him over the edge? That question is never fully answered, and it makes Harvey’s turn so sharp and complete it lacks credibility.
A far worse offense than that, though, is what it actually is that pushes Harvey Dent over the edge, and what he becomes afterwards.
The manipulation has begun…
In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is initiated by Palpatine instilling a distrust for the Jedi council in him; a distrust that’s not entirely unwarranted. They do hold Anakin back, because they do fear what he might become. There is a lack of communication from both sides between Anakin and the Council, with Obi-Wan as the only person to bridge that gap to some extent. Palpatine knows very well that all he needs to do is to keep Anakin away from Obi-Wan to start his plan and poison the boy’s mind. It all begins with the very same visions that plagued Anakin before the death of his mother, only now they are about his young wife Padmé. Whether the visions are a creation of Dark Side rituals perpetrated by Palpatine or not, the future emperor happily makes use of the horrible associations they make in Anakin’s mind to make the young Jedi fear for his beloved’s life. Then, acting as though he is entirely unaware of Anakin’s situation, he teases him with promises of the power to keep his beloved from dying… Dark Side power. Gently, he lures the boy in, making him curious, preying on his distrust of the Jedi, his great power (suppressed by Jedi ideology) and his greatest fears. He plays the father figure, the only one who understands him, who is willing to listen and tell him what he wants to hear. That’s very important! Then, when push comes to shove and Anakin really finds himself in a situation where he has to make a choice between the Jedi and Palpatine, all the elements are in place for Anakin to make the choice to side with Palpatine and gain the power to save his beloved wife, whom he loves in a passionate and irrational way. From here, Anakin ceases to be Anakin and becomes Darth Vader, a tool of the emperor. His anger and hatred lead him to do the most horrible thing imaginable: to kill children. This is a very extreme act, one that completely pushes him into absolute darkness, and that’s precisely why it was a necessary and important plot-point and it was earned by what came before: hatred for the Jedi who tried to suppress his powers, who are complacent and unwilling to act, who will stop at nothing to gain control of the entire Republic and the whole galaxy, as proclaimed by the one person Anakin still trusts, the only one who can save the love of his life. At this point, the Jedi are de-humanised in Anakin’s mind and the murder of their children becomes a gruesome necessity in his twisted view. Once this has occurred, his turn to evil is clear and complete.
“Yeah, this seems like a reasonable guy. I think I’ll listen to him instead of everybody else on the planet.”
In The Dark Knight, Rachel is killed by the Joker. This is no secret to Harvey Dent. He knows well enough that the Joker misled Batman and that the Dark Knight did everything he could to save both Harvey and Rachel. But while Harvey is resting in the hospital, his face half burned away (a form of symbolic immolation similar to Anakin’s burning in Revenge of the Sith), he gets a visit from the Joker. The dialogue that then plays out is what leads to the worst, most contrived subplot in the movie. The Joker, the man who is clearly and directly responsible for the death of Harvey’s girlfriend, is actually the only person Harvey listens to. He shouts commissioner Gordon away, a good and decent man, but actually listens to the one person he knows he can blame! The one face that should be on the receiving end of his fist, a psychotic and murderous clown, that is the person that Harvey decides to actually trust on his word. A brief speech follows, where the Joker blames the corruption of society, the selfish ambitions of the politicians and other obvious fingerpoints for what actually happened to Rachel, portraying himself to be nothing more than a random force of nature, a purposeless bringer of carnage, in other words, a kind of nihilistic cosmical force who really can’t help it that he just is who he is. And what happens? Harvey listens. Yup. He lets the Joker go. After all, he’s only a “wild dog”, as he puts it later in the movie. Instead he decides to go after everyone else except the Joker. It’s at this point that the movie makes absolutely zero emotional sense anymore. It ends with Harvey threatening the lives of commissioner Gordon’s wife and kids, in other words, exactly the people he was out to protect before, exactly the people he as a rational and intelligent man knows to be innocent. All of this is explained by nothing more than a coin symbolising Harvey’s tendency for seeing life as random and indifferent and pointlessly cruel. You know, that might have worked if he had always been a cold-blooded psycho. But he was a good and decent man, not prone to hubris, not prone to psychosis and not emotionally hurt in a way that would believably lead him to such completely illogical and irrational actions that are so far removed from the character he was just a few days before, it’s completely and utterly unwarranted. Sure, I know that Harvey, in a moment of anger, was threatening a criminal with his coin, playing out a very Dirty Harry-like scene where blind chance was given control over the fate of the man he was threatening. But how on earth does this set up his later actions? Just because the same theme was used doesn’t mean it explains in any way why he would completely ignore the clear and present evil and instead very purposely pursue the obviously innocent. Two-Face is not an agent of the unpredictable forces of blind chance, as the script desperately wants us to see it, he is just a bad guy. For no reason established in his previous actions or dialogue.
Because of this, I claim without any reservations that Revenge of the Sith does a vastly superior job of conveying the fall of a hero to darkness than The Dark Knight does. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just one of several reasons why I believe George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels to be superior films compared to The Dark Knight.